‘Torch Song’ offers reflective look at LGBTQ+ history

Jan. 15, 2024 | Trent Levakis
tlevakis@thereminder.com

Director Jason Rose-Langston breaks down the scene with actors Rona Leventhal and Devin Dumas.
Reminder Publishing photo by Trent Levakis

EASTHAMPTON — The continued rise of the Easthampton Theater Company within the community and arts scene in the region will keep rolling on as they prepare for another much-anticipated show in “Torch Song” at the City Space Blue Room at 43 Main St. from Jan. 26 to Feb. 4.

“Torch Song,” by Harvey Fierstein, is a play that shines light on love, identity and acceptance.

The play follows the journey of Arnold Beckoff, a New York City drag queen, as he navigates the challenges of self-discovery. He wants what many people want, a partner, a child and a pair of bunny slippers, but a visit from his overbearing mother reminds him that he needs one more thing: respect.

While bringing together a crew for this production, Easthampton Theater Company was approached by Jason Hayes, a wig specialist, and hair and makeup artist who has spent his 25-plus year career working alongside some big names on Broadway, television and film.

One day during the writers’ strike last year when much of his work had been put on halt, Hayes was scrolling on Facebook when he came across the theater company’s posting for this upcoming production. As someone who knows a thing or two about the production of “Torch Song” and its creator, Hayes immediately reached out to see if there was an opportunity to work on the production.

“I sent them an email and I said, look I know the show inside and out and I’ve been friends with Harvey [Fierstein] for over 25 years. I said I’d love to volunteer my services, so I literally volunteered to do this with them after seeing a Facebook ad,” Hayes said laughing about the path that led to this collaboration.

Hayes has worked on many different productions across the big three platforms of storytelling media in theater, television and film during his career and said his start in creating wigs as well as makeup often came through working with drag queens. Hayes added he would say he has over 3,000 wigs he has hand crafted in his stock that he uses when needed for different projects. Production Director Jason Rose-Langston said Hayes joining the production shows his love for the show and dedication for the show as well as his want to preserve the story being told.

“He’s been so generous and so gracious and has added some tremendous insights into the show having been a close personal friend of Harvey and also being part of so many different productions. It’s been wonderful,” Rose-Langston said. “His insights to the text within the text, within the text, has been fabulous.”

Fierstein’s Tony Award-winning play is celebrated for its humor, poignancy and unflinching portrayal of the LGBTQ+ experience. Taking place in the 1970s, the play looks at its subjects as human through and through, exploring a calmer time in LGBTQ+ civil rights history that takes place between the Stonewall uprising and before the AIDS crisis.

Both Hayes and Rose-Langston feel the period piece provides for a unique look into the era for the community, as well as looks at themes and dynamics that still very much apply to the ongoing civil rights fight happening in present day.

“The show has a very interesting spot in history,” Rose-Langston said. “There’s this pocket of about 10 to 12 years or so where there was this tremendous boom of revolution and the modern women’s movement, as well as the modern gay movement. All of this advocacy, that exists as a vein through this entire show. That’s really what I wanted to find, what I wanted to encourage and find, and it has.”

For his day job, Rose-Langston works as a psychotherapist and added one of his subspecialties of his job is working with transgender people, which has given him a sense of honor for working on a piece “so ahead of its time, and in it’s presentation of the [LGBTQ+] community.”

“It became an amazing opportunity. As director of the show now, I bring that level of expertise but also the understanding that I am an advocate, that I am an ally,” Rose-Langston said.

On the period the show takes place in, Hayes said having the show be pre-AIDS crisis opens a window for storytelling where these characters are given so much more humanity compared to many other famous works on the LGBTQ+ community that focus more on the impacts from the crisis.

“The majority of queer literature and performative pieces that we tend to see, tend to be post-AIDS, or that is the narrative or thread running through the production. And that’s what I find so enticing about this piece, it removes that element and so we solely look at these characters are people and their interactions on a personal level and we don’t have that added layer of conflict,” Hayes said.

Hayes added the costume designing for this show allows for a great look into the culture that was for the LGBTQ+ and drag community during the time, but also added that through drag performances, the costume also translates with a character’s personality and finding that balance in a period piece like this was important.

“You have to delve into who the character actually is. With the character Arnold, his drag name is Virginia Ham, and there’s always that joke that she’s both young and beautiful but never both at the same time,” Hayes said with a laugh. “You’re looking at 1974 and 1980 for example and at that point the makeup would be called what we call garage doors, where the entire eyelid is one color. You have to understand the era that you’re building the character in.”

Thankfully for his collection of wigs and an additional “thousands of costumes that go as far back as the mid 80s”, Hayes has been the perfect addition and resource for the production on hand.

Directed by Rose-Langston and produced by Michael O. Budnick and Rose-Langston, the cast includes Patric Madden as the lead Arnold, Jay Torres as Ed, Kim Tobin as Laurel, David DiRocco as Alan, Devin Dumas as David and Rona Leventhal as Ma.

“The actors have just embraced their characters. As an actor I can say it’s easy to embrace characters when there’s a fullness of humanity in that character and each of the characters in this show has that. Even the smaller characters, there’s a full range of humanity. Nobody is a black and white image of what someone is supposed to be, no one is a token, no one is any of that. And I think that’s what makes great theater. That’s what makes great writing, what makes good performance, is that humanity coming through,” Rose-Langston said.

Both Rose-Langston and Hayes closed with speaking about the importance of the story this play says about humanity through the LGBTQ+ experience and how as hard as people have fought the last almost six decades, many of the same challenges are still being faced to this date.

“It’s another reason why we were drawn to this material, because of the present-day backlash, because of what we’re living through right now. Because of what I’m seeing in my office every day. The very real threat that not just my clients, not just the people in the community, but the country itself faces at every turn. We are once again in a horrible, horrible backlash,” Rose-Langston said. “It is even more important to remember the history, to remember there’s still things that must be overcome, and to present and honest story.”

He continued, “It’s not just about the history, but it’s also — there is so much of this play that is about how do we create a concept of family, how do we create a concept of love, relationships, devotion, intergenerational connection. Those things are universal no matter what the family may look like.”

Hayes said it was the sense of community that led him to reaching out to work on this production.

“I was very clear when I reached out to Michael that I found it extremely important and I was very impressed that such a small theater company in a very rural area was doing such a historically iconic queer piece of theater in this current political time and that’s why I wanted to be involved,” Hayes said.
Hayes shared he was one of the founding members who helped organize Disarm Hate, a group created in response to the Pulse nightclub massacre in 2016 which has worked in creating a national rally demanding LGBTQ+ equal rights as well as challenging the NRA and tackling issues around gun violence.

“Seven weeks after the shooting I raised $75,000 from my dining room table and held the only march on Washington in response,” Hayes said. “It’s very important the narrative is told because I think everyone is talking, but I think what we have to start learning is to start listening. You could lay the sound bites right next to each other from Anita Bryant in the 70s and 80s and her tirades against the queer community, to things said from 2023 and you won’t find any changes in rhetoric and that’s because those are the people who profit off hate. They haven’t changed their narrative because it works, because you give people very little information, and you just create fear.”

“Torch Song” will run from Jan. 26 to Feb. 4 and includes Friday and Saturday performances at 7:30 p.m., and Sunday matinees at 2 p.m. This play contains adult language and situations.

Tickets are $20 for general admission and $18 for students and military, and are available at www.easthamptontheater.com or through Showtix at www.showtix4u.com/event-details/78221. Group discounts are also available.

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